June 23, 2012

Book 24: Rosa

Jonathan Rabb

What do you get when you take a  somewhat disgruntled, experienced police detective, a volatile Central European country teetering on the brink of political disaster, a brutal crime, and hints of corruption? Jonathan Rabb's novel Rosa indeed has the classic elements of a noir mystery, and successfully weaves them into the tapestry of pre-Weimar Germany. Detective Nikolai Hoffner is at once unique and standard, a no-nonsense policeman with his own deep character faults who can nonetheless be counted upon to do the right thing. Though he alternately comes across as a cardboard cutout and as a fully fleshed character, he is sufficiently interesting and complex to continually drive the story forward. So it is with the plot, divided into two main halves but placed within the scope of plausible- if slightly unlikely- historical fact. The story combines glimpses into Hoffner's personal life and past with a cascade of discoveries that reveal a much more complex case than either the main characters or the reader initially assumed. Though there is little that is surprising within Rosa, it boasts a strong cast of supporting characters and a nice mid-story plot twist that adds depth and historical interest along with a hint of originality that sets this book apart. Though Rabb easily falls into the historical cameo trap, involving unsavory characters from the future Nazi Germany as well as- somewhat less plausibly- Albert Einstein, he knows his stuff, and convincingly portrays postwar Berlin with the assistance of a strong supporting cast. While there is nothing to particularly recommend the prose, Rabb is efficient and effective at revealing details and maintaining suspense without wielding too much authorial dictatorship. Regardless, the book is tightly plotted, and Rabb should be commended for refusing to allow too many gotcha moments- everything fits together neatly, but appropriately, without undue editorial wrangling. Sure, the scope gets a bit out of hand at times, but can one really erase knowledge of Germany's near future? The book manages to posit an alternate history without vitally altering anything of paramount significance, and gains some thematic depth and historical resonance in the process.  Ultimately, Rosa hits all the right notes and creates a convincing scene and story, satisfactory to mystery fans and historians alike.

Grade: A-

June 11, 2012

Book 23: Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall
Bill Willingham, et al.

After reading the first volume of collected Fables comics, I dove into this anthology, which rewinds the general narrative a bit and takes a look at some main players before the events in the main story began. Though it was published between two later volumes from the main plot line, and though I had only read one major story arc, I found myself immediately engrossed in the stories and, more importantly, in the characters. This, of course, is no accident, as the whole premise of the Fables series is that, well, we know the characters already, or are at least familiar with their oft-told stories. What is remarkable, however, is how coherently these tales hang together and how seamlessly they play off of the familiar histories. As Bill Willingham writes in his introduction, there is very little internal Fables backstory necessary to enjoy these stories and to understand their greater implications. And for those familiar with Willingham's re-tellings, these short stories not only continue the tradition of re-thinking fairy tales and legends, but also play off of future events and characterizations readers will already know. Just about anyone could pick this book up without having any idea that Fables actually existed, and still enjoy the storytelling, artwork, and overall narrative effect. The idea of re-hashing well-known stories certainly isn't new, and the trope's recent popularity has forced would-be re-inventors to reach sufficient levels of depth and originality; 1001 Nights of Snowfall does this, and does it in spades, all while remaining accessible and providing an entry point for new readers.

One reason why Fables is so intriguing is its use of a greater narrative framework both within this collection and around the individual stories that take place within the universe. This clever development allows characters from a thousand different fantasy realms and human cultures to interact and, indeed, to cooperate. It is this rich background that allows the Fables mythology to exist, and it is this catastrophic turn of events that provides the narrative impetus for each of the stories within this collection. The collection itself is bound by its own narrative arc that benefits a bit from knowledge of the modern-day Fables setting, but this knowledge only adds a bit of a knowing nod rather than being essential to the stories. Each story focuses on a character or characters from our well-known folk tales, and most offer a Fables-specific rethinking of the classic tale, though the opener is a straightforward, modern-day reevaluation of the typical Snow White story, a bit tedious perhaps given the current inundation of Snow White reboots, but refreshing and modern nonetheless. The other stories are just familiar enough to make readers comfortable, yet original enough to present something new and, often, emotionally riveting.

What is most remarkable, however, is that a collection with such strong plotting, if not particularly riveting dialogue, has another strength completely: its art. Graphic novel skeptics should be immediately convinced by the stunning array of artistic talent on display within. The short story format allows a number of artists to lend their eyes and sensibilities to Willingham's innovations, and it is delightful to see how different artists envision these classic characters and how their styles affect the storytelling- and reading- experience. And skeptics take heart: only one story is illustrated in what one might call a typical superhero style, and each story's visual experience is entirely different, making for refreshing changes of pace as well as thoughtful re-calibrations for each story. The differences serve to highlight the ways in which these are at once familiar and entirely new approaches to traditional characters. While each illustrator adds a distinctive flair to their particular tale, James Jean's art for "A Frog's-Eye View," the Frog Prince's tale, is truly transcendent. The muted palette and thick black borders combine with the characters' sheer desperation to create a formidable argument for the power of graphic narrative. The story, so unapologetically tragic, reaches a new depth of meaning through Jean's art, and while the other art is far from merely serviceable, it is this story that stands above the rest. Though none of the other stories quite reach this formidable level of synchronicity between narration, dialogue, and art, 1001 Nights of Snowfall offers nicely varied re-thinkings of well-known tales, one that simultaneously enhances the established Fables universe and offers entertainment for newcomers.

Grade: A

June 9, 2012

Book 22: Fables: Legends in Exile

Fables: Legends in Exile
Bill Willingham and Lan Medina

Fairy tale re-tellings have been a popular genre recently, but Bill Willingham's Fables graphic novel series appeared slightly ahead of the curve, both in time and in skill. It is obvious from the beginning that Willingham has constructed a fictional universe that extends far beyond this story, a functional detective narrative whose novelty lies far more in character than in plot. Though the plot, such as it is, is fairly straightforward, it is a brilliant way to introduce a wide cast of characters who will presumably take center stage in following installments. As a typical detective story, it is well constructed with plenty of twists to hold readers' interests, a functional and firmly defined narrative in which to place and develop unusual elements. Also wise is Willingham's choice to put familiar characters Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf on center stage, allowing readers to glide into this parallel reality with relative ease, while allowing the authors to highlight their chosen deviations from the traditional stories. Character development is key in Fables, and it is truly delightful to tag along with Willingham's modern, realistic re-imagining of these familiar faces, of whom Prince Charming, it must be said, is the pinnacle. Recasting the prince as a vapid and self-serving frat-boy type is fitting and insightful and inserts an element of humor into an otherwise fairly grim (ha) murder story. What is remarkable about Fables is not any of its singular elements- the dialogue, plotting, and art are all on the functional side- but the way in which they combine to create an enticing and believable world, populated with characters that are at once familiar, exotic, and new. The art is sufficient, done in a more traditional comic book style that suits the narrative well enough to stay out of the way and allow for efficient storytelling. The collected volume is also accompanied by a short story from Willingham, and though his prose leaves much to be desired, the story fleshes out some of the backstory without clogging the main narrative line, which contains just enough history to entice and explain but not enough to overwhelm the current plot. Fables: Legends in Exile is a great debut, a comic that presupposes only a basic introduction to western culture and fairy tales and one that shows remarkable restraint in creating a novel narrative fabric that will entice readers to read subsequent volumes.

Grade: A

June 1, 2012

Book 21: Marking Time

Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar
Duncan Steel

Calendars and timekeeping systems may seem at first an odd choice of subject for a book, but upon further reflection, few things impact our daily lives more strongly than time. After all, each workday begins with the tolling of a bell and the hands of the clock govern much more than we would probably like to admit. Thus is Duncan Steel's attempt at an accessible history of calendars and, to a lesser extent, time itself most welcome. Unfortunately, Steel, while apparently being an expert in his field, is also one of the most pompous, peacocks it has ever been my misfortune to read. There is good information buried deep within his purple prose, but the authorial presence is so strong within this book that I defy anyone to put up with more than a few pages before wishing to throw it and begin screaming. A harsh assessment, perhaps, but one that I think is more than justified for many reasons. First, I don't think Mr. Steel is intentionally off-putting, and I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, his attempts to strike up a conversational tone with readers fall flat at best and encourage, well, unseemly thoughts at worst. Where he attempts to be conversational, he comes across only as condescending, time and again reminding his readers that it is he, indeed, who is the expert and, by the way, did you do your homework?

For Steel is not merely content to cram his narrative as chock-full of alienating math as possible (after an infuriating attempt at sarcasm denouncing the very notion of arithmetic-laden popular works!), but he has included three appendices that go into far greater depth about concepts which are, in fact, crucial to an understanding of the book. This causes several problems. First is his irritating assertion in an introductory chapter that the following concepts will be beyond the poor, pitiable reader's feeble mind unless we refer to his appendices. This, however, is usurped entirely by later passages that accuse readers of skipping the so-called "supplementary" information. If this additional information, which is indeed difficult to grasp for the mathematical layperson, is so necessary, why didn't the author or, perish the thought, the editor plunk it down in the middle of the narrative? Or why not craft a book that is actually accessible to the uninformed public, as is the stated assertion? This hints at a greater problem: the book is woefully organized, with non-sequitur pieces of unrelated trivia becoming sadly expected- though no less groan-worthy- because of their constant infiltration. The idea of introducing a complex concept by outlining the following theses and main points, which Steel maddeningly finds necessary to explain in and of itself, is admirable but highly unnecessary in a book with well-labeled chapters and named subsections. All it serves is to bore readers with a kind of repetition that is rampant throughout the book, wherein examples are flogged to death in multiple chapters and ideas are dropped simply because they might- but usually don't- fit better in another chapter. This makes the book extremely disjointed, and readers have to stop and reset almost every time a new idea is approached; this, despite the fact that hardly any of the ideas are new by the time Steel deigns to actually explain them in any depth.

All of this, plus the inexcusable condescension in nearly every sentence and abundance of insulting exclamation points, makes the book nearly unreadable. Should one venture beyond the language, there is some valuable historical and scientific information to be had, though woe betide the poor scholar tempted to wrangle with Steel's idea of a historical argument. He may be, and apparently is, a brilliant scientist, but a historian capable of convincing argumentation he is not, a problem that directly impacts many of his frankly bizarre historical assertions. There may be a hint of truth to the idea that the date of Easter was a major sticking point between the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches, and I am inclined to trust his retro-calculation of the possible date of Jesus's birth, but the assertion that the English wished to colonize Virginia because it lies on some sort of magical latitude line is so patently absurd and poorly supported that I actually laughed out loud, even after hearing him out. Coincidences may provide fodder for interesting and even heretical thoughts, but Steel seems so focused on his novel hypothesis that he ignores, oh, pretty much every other hint of historical context. Mix this with his obvious contempt for religion, and it's difficult to take him quite so seriously, bringing us back to a preening narrative with very little actual substance. I wanted to like this book. Oh, how I wanted to enjoy the book and, perhaps, learn something. I hate to be so harsh but, unfortunately, Making Time is so heavily clogged with the author's unfriendly self-awareness that it is nearly useless in a practical sense, with every possible redeeming quality mercilessly squeezed out by needless pompousness and unrelated trivia.

Grade: D+